The European Parliament is by definition, by etymology, a “talking shop.” However, the reality is that the talk on the house floor when the subject turns to Russia and international security is a monologue, not debate.
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
For those who are unfamiliar with the activities of the European Parliament, allow me to explain that aside from its quasi-legislative functions, it is host to numerous informational events in its conference rooms and auditoriums accommodating anywhere from 15 or 20 participants up to several hundred. These events are organized sometimes by single deputies, more commonly by parties and blocs of parties to inform deputies and interested members of the general public about topical issues. Sometimes, as in the case we will now examine, the event is part of a campaign by the host deputy to justify in public a legislative initiative he or she is launching in the Parliament.
It is a given that very few deputies actually come to these sessions. More commonly they send their administrative assistants or researchers from the many think tanks in the European capital with whom they have close association. Notices are posted by elevators in the EP building and sometimes posted on websites inviting the outside public to register and receive admittance badges to the building where chaperones take them to the given conference room. Generally the proceedings are considered to be “on record” with no restrictions on dissemination of what is said in the room by speakers or audience.
In what follows I will describe an event of this kind which was held in the European Parliament building on Tuesday, 31 May. Though unexceptional in its format and in its attendees, it illustrates perfectly how and why Europe is sleepwalking its way into World War III with Russia, or why, as I say more colorfully in the heading, the Old Continent is ‘brain dead,’ just no one has bothered to publicize this fact.
In this essay we will consider who hosted the event, who made the presentation of the newly published research report around which it was built, what are the merits or faults of the report itself and what was significant about the Q & A which leads me to my conclusion about the state of intellectual discourse in Europe today on matters of international security.
The organizer of the event was Anna Fotyga, an MEP from Poland who has had a very high profile in that country’s domestic politics within what is now the ruling party in Warsaw, the Law and Justice party (PiS in Polish). During 2006-2007, she was the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the first government of the Kaczynski brothers, PiS’ founders and guiding spirits.
The foreign policy of PiS both then and today is marked by Euroscepticism and hostile rhetoric directed against Poland’s big neighbors, Germany and Russia. Today the accent in particular is on Russophobia and full-scale resurrection of a Cold War in which Poland plays a unique role as America’s advance military post and bastion against an aggressive, imperialist-minded Russia.
For Fotyga, serving in the European Parliament is by no means a political exile, as is often assumed to be the case when speaking about high flying politicians who are sent to Brussels. On the contrary, the EP has provided her with an excellent platform to continue on a pan-European scale the policies she worked on from Warsaw. Fotyga has been a leading member of the group of 75 MEPs from Poland and the Baltic States, accounting for just 10% of the Parliamentary seats, who have been the driving force behind a succession of virulently anti-Russian resolutions that were approved with ever greater frequency by the European Parliament in the past couple of years.
From her words on Tuesday, it was clear that she is now working on a new effort to pass a law through the EP that requires European NGOs receiving funding from abroad to report the details to the authorities. It was not clear whether the application would be universal or just concern funding coming from Russia, though the context of the meeting suggests selective application is likely what is intended. Surely it would not be in the interests of the sponsors of the bill to publicize the extent to which European civil society is being funded and directed by proxies of the U.S. government.
As Fotyga told us, the model for such a law is the Foreign Agents Act in the USA. This served also as the model for the Kremlin a couple of years ago when it introduced such a requirement. At the time, Moscow was denounced in Europe and the USA for this measure, which was alleged to be part of a crackdown on civil society: forcing NGOs operating in Russia to acknowledge their foreign backers and exposing them to ridicule from patriots or be shut down for failing to file.
The report presented to us on Tuesday was devoted to the agents of Russian soft power, and in particular, the Kremlin funded NGO “Russkiy Mir” (The Russian World) which not only serves the Russian diaspora abroad but bears a name which encapsulates the activities of all other proxies. Such a report would appear to be a useful exhibit for Fotyga in her proposed new anti-Russian campaign.
The author and presenter of the report was Orysia Lutsevych, a Ukrainian national based in London, where she works as manager of the Ukraine Forum in the Russia and Eurasia Programme of the widely known and respected British think tank Chatham House. Indeed, Chatham House is the publisher of her report.
So far, so good.
But let us not be content with superficialities.
Firstly, Chatham House today is not some salon of aristocrats and intellectuals as it was perhaps once upon a time. A large majority of its experts on Russia and the Former Soviet Union are clearly aligned with the Liberals who ran Russia in the 1990s under President Yeltsin and are fiercely critical of Putin’s Russia today.
Secondly, Lutsevych’s CV as posted on the Chatham House website should set off alarm bells for anyone expecting unbiased academic research on Russia. Her MS degree in international relations was taken at Lviv State University, in the heartland of the Maidan movement of radical Ukrainian nationalism. Her second MS is said to have been in “public administration” from the University of Missouri-Columbia. The University’s website indicates that the closest degree awarded by the Harry S. Truman School (rhymes with Cold War) is “Public Affairs.” And we are told that: “Students come to us with the desire to change the world.[bold type theirs]. We give them the practical knowledge and skills to make a difference for people, organizations and communities.” Put in plain English, Lutsevych received an advanced degree in propaganda and organizing color revolutions.
Her employment record backs up this interpretation of her skills. Her professional career began in 2005-07 as Deputy Director of the PAUCI Foundation, an acronym for the Polish Ukrainian Cooperation Foundation. From there she moved to the position of Executive Director of the newly founded Open Ukraine Foundation of Arseniy Yatsenyuk (the same “Yats” whom Victoria Nuland promoted in 2014 to be the premier of post-coup d’état Ukraine). In 2009 she served as Head of Development at Europe House Georgia. And in 2012 she finally found her niche in the West, becoming a fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House, where we find her today
Given where Lutsevych is coming from, her report entitled “Agents of the Russian World. Proxy Groups in the Contested Neighbourhood” is rather bland and seemingly inoffensive. Russia’s perspective on relations with the West as a defense against ever increasing encroachments is set out with reasonable accuracy
The problem is the very British logic of “you would say that, wouldn’t you,” meaning that Russian logic is never tested against fact. Russian perceptions remain just that – perceptions – which implicitly, by default, do not correspond to reality, though that assumption is never tested or proven.
Whereas the record shows unequivocally that the Kremlin’s foreign policy follows one principle only, Realism, meaning defense of national strategic interests, and is not subject to Romantic nationalist visions of any kind, the author of the report repeats the convenient deception that Russian policy is guided by the obscurantist philosophy of former Moscow State professor Alexander Dugin, currently in official disgrace, with his Eurasianism and antipathy to the values of the West. Imperial ambitions are attributed to “the current Russian leadership” without the slightest attempt to provide proof.
If we cut to the quick, what is missing in this report is any attempt to place Russian state policies aimed at developing soft power abroad in an historical or geographical context. Historical analysis, with play by play recounting of who did what to whom, would make it plain that Russia’s creation of purpose built NGOs to further its language, culture and political interests abroad was a delayed response to the realities of the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1992, namely the fact that Russian speakers and/or ethnic Russians overnight became the world’s single largest national group living outside the borders of its own ethnos and subject to treatment as second-class citizens or, as in the case of the Baltic States, to revocation of its civil rights. They numbered perhaps 25 million, though estimates range as high as 40 million. The delay in official Russian state response to this reality may be explained by Russia’s own self-absorption with its severe economic problems in the turbulent 1990s when the great mass of the population fell below the poverty line. The emergence of Russia from its ‘time of troubles’ early in the new millennium under President Vladimir Putin made it possible finally to deal with the sad fate of Russia’s former compatriots living abroad. And it has done so in the most circumspect way given the currently fashionable principle in international relations of the “responsibility to protect” threatened minorities.
The author of the report correctly indicates that nearly all of Russia’s ‘’soft power” investments in supporting its language, culture and identity abroad is invested in former Soviet Union space, with Ukraine and Kazakhstan being the largest beneficiaries. That also happens to be where the greatest number of ethnic Russian and Russian speakers left adrift in 1992 happen to live.
In fact, the only area where Russian support for compatriots through state-financed NGOs has relevance to the European Union is the Baltic States of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. There this issue is conflated by Russia’s detractors in the European Parliament with the very emotive notion of “hybrid warfare” that Russia is said to have waged with stunning success in its takeover of Crimea in March 2014 and subsequent opening of the Donbass conflict in Ukraine.
It is very important and symptomatic of the entire anti-Russian narrative of the information war going back to 2007 that the report’s author makes no attempt to put Russian financing of its political interests abroad through NGOs encouraging language studies, cultural support and the like in a comparative context with similar activities of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, even Spain through a great variety of platforms they have established around the world, with an emphasis on former colonies, where applicable. Put in this context, the Russian efforts are exceedingly modest and would never justify the attention they are receiving from the country’s ill-intentioned detractors. But the broader lesson is that the authors of such reports never look in the mirror and ask what they themselves are doing in the field of vision under the microscope. Everything Russian is taken to be unique and measured against a golden standard of selflessness, against which it falls short
In this same connection, it is more than ironic that the Acknowledgements page of the report thanks the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Robert Bosch Stiftung for financing that made its publication possible. Both entities fit perfectly Lutsevych’s remarks on how state funded agents (the former) and loyal business interests (the latter) fund state propaganda in the information war. Only it bears stressing that the USA in particular and the West in general invented such outsourcing techniques. This point arose in the discussion and I will return to it.
The Presentation and the Q&A
We were told at the outset by the presenter that she would not go over the entire thesis of the research because her 43 page brochure-report was handed out to all attendees. And so we were treated to what she considered highlights and to a free exchange with the audience.
This in fact is what justifies going to such events, because when away from their editors and handlers, the rapporteurs and politician-hosts can give free expression to their fantasy and share some memorable and very telling indications of what they really have in mind. Such was the case on Tuesday, 31 May.
They do this in full confidence that the audience or participants are either meek underlings or colleagues who are like-minded to themselves. MEPs tend not to show up. Assistants and researchers will not pose hostile questions. And the general public has been screened in advance by the registration process.
In this regard, and as demonstration that unknown and possibly hostile members of the general public are weeded out in advance, I note that my request for registration by email in which I identified my institutional affiliation was rejected by the Fotyga’s assistant on the morning of the event. Very likely she googled me before responding that the registration list was already closed. And yet, when the session opened, perhaps 10% of the seats were vacant. I got in with the help of a kindly administrative assistant who works for an MEP with whom Fotyga is at odds. And during the whole session, both Fotyga and Lutsevych stared pointedly at me much of the time, as if expecting some protest flag to be unfurled.
The highlight and a good indication of the mental abilities of the author of the report came at the end of Q&A when she chose to explain the nature of Putin's distortions of our Western political concepts that his agents are spreading in our midst. Democracy, as Putin understands it, is rule by majority and referendums whereas for us democracy is protection of minorities, meaning proportional representation, etc. The context for Lutsevych’s thinking was surely the referendum in Crimea on accession to the Russian Federation; possibly it was the recent Dutch referendum on ratification of the EU-Ukraine association agreement. But the outrageousness of such views from someone living and working in London, a stone’s throw from the mother of Parliaments, and enjoying life in a country with ‘first past the post’ electoral rules is beyond fathoming or forgiving.
It is also worth mentioning here one further stunning measure of the strength of debating power of our hosts. During Q&A, one of Fotyga's administrative aides, a well-dressed young man from Georgia who spoke excellent American English, told us at length how Russia has used its aggressive soft power to bully the Georgian parliament. Russian propaganda has been repeating and repeating that joining the European Union means surrendering to lesbianism and to the homos. And so the Georgian parliament has just adopted an amendment to the constitution clarifying the state of matrimony as being between a (biological) man and a (biological) woman. The aide was scandalized and expected all of us in the room to share his sense of shock. All of this was said with great earnestness by a young man clearly on the way up.
There were very few questions from the audience and, in fact, the session broke up a half an hour early. But there was one question that deserves careful attention. It came in response to remarks by Lutsevych at the start of her presentation.
Lutsevych opened her talk citing an interview recently given by Svetlana Alekseevich, in which the Nobel prize winning author from Belarus said that Russians want to live in a ‘great country’ rather than a ‘normal country.’ In Lutsevych’s estimation Russia’s neo-imperial ambitions are behind its creation of a Russkiy Mir ideology and its seeking to obstruct the integration process of its shared neighborhood, namely Ukraine and Moldova, with the European Union. Hence, too, the strongly anti-American narrative which Russian proxy agents disseminate abroad in the information war.
These words, which were among the very few observations which went off script from the report, elicited a “question” or, more properly speaking, a comment from the one MEP in attendance, Eugen Freund an Austrian member of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, the center-left half of the coalition that effectively controls the European Parliament. Freund remarked that he was initially uncertain which country with a known belief in its “exceptionalism” the speaker was talking about, the United States of America or Russia. Said Freund, there was nothing very unusual in Russia’s soft power agenda.
To this Lutsevych responded that while similarities may seem to exist, the content was utterly different. To be sure, America’s Freedom House and National Endowment for Democracy are both largely funded by the US Treasury, but they have independent governing boards and congressional oversight by bipartisan committees. Moreover, their employees are genuinely dedicated to doing good works in a charitable spirit. To whom she was addressing these fairy tales from Cold War mythology is not at all clear.
What kind of ‘talking shop’ is the European Parliament?
The European Parliament is by definition, by etymology, a “talking shop.” However, the reality is that the talk on the house floor is a monologue, not debate. The EP is a top-down institution controlled completely by the governing coalition of center right and center left. To be more specific, its agenda is dominated by Berlin. Berlin installed the SPD leader Martin Schulz as President. Berlin installed CDU-CSU politician Elmar Brok as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. And the ruling coalition allocates scarce talking rights on the floor in a house which is rather unwieldy at 751 seats to those speakers it chooses to favor, all the more so in sensitive issues like international security.
Moreover, while individual countries in Europe have reputations for ingrained individualism and divergence of opinion, Europe as a whole has a reputation for consensus or going with the flow, even if the flow is heading over the cliff.
I have little doubt that MEP Freund’s views on the intellectual merit of the presentation and presenters on 31 May differed little from my own. But he contented himself with one acid remark.
That reminded me of my meeting a little more than a year ago with a recent president of the Socialists and Democrats bloc in the European Parliament, Hannes Swoboda, also an Austrian, who held the post till he was relieved by Martin Schulz. The occasion of our meeting was a conference on the Black Sea littoral countries held in Varna, Bulgaria. After the day’s session, in which Swoboda was the key speaker and delivered an unexciting, almost routine speech about peace in the region, many of us retired to a delightful balcony overlooking the sea where we were served some excellent Bulgarian white wine that is known locally but does not travel well. In an expansive mood, Swoboda spoke to us briefly about the confrontation with Russia over Crimea and Donbass. It was crystal clear from his words that he has the same information as I do and has come to many of the same conclusions. But will he say that in public? Never!
And here is the nub. Without open debate of the key issues of European security including relations with Russia, we all are losers. We, in the minority, are busy shadow boxing because no one invites us into the ring. And those who stand in the ring, like Fotyga and Lutsevych did on the 31st, can only produce specious arguments in favor of the reckless policies they are urging on their fellow Parliamentarians and on the European executive. They would not be left standing for a moment in a genuine marketplace of ideas. Hence my verdict: Europe is brain dead.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2016
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G, Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord Ltd. His most recent book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.